One of the most beautiful winter blooming perennials in our area is Helleborus orientalis, commonly known as Lenten Rose. Not a rose at all, this plant is actually a member of the buttercup family, and the genus Hellebore, which comprises 15 to 20 species. The common name derives from the rose-like appearance of it’s flowers, and it’s very early bloom, which sometimes falls during Lent. Helleborus orientalis is native to parts of Europe and Asia, and is hardy from zone 9 to 4.
Descriptions of Hellebore can be found in medieval medical texts, where it is recommended for the treatment of worms and as a purgative. There are numerous beliefs and legends involving this plant; in witchcraft it is believed to have ties to summoning demons. Helleborus niger is commonly called the Christmas rose, due to an old legend claiming that it sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem.
In Greek mythology, Melampus of Pylos used Hellebore to save the daughters of the king of Argos from a madness, induced by Dionysus, that caused them to run naked through the city, crying, weeping, and screaming. And during the Siege of Kirrha in 585 BC, Hellebore was reportedly used by the Greek attackers to poison the city’s water supply.
Hellebore is a beautiful plant, both in and out of bloom. The flowers range in color from garnet to lavender and pink to white, and once they begin to fade, the petals become chartreuse and lime green, lasting for months on their stems and for many days in arrangements. Hellebore foliage is a deep lustrous green and generally evergreen in the Bay Area. These plants love shade, and once established they are very drought tolerant. They do well under redwoods and are especially lovely in woodland type gardens.